Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Visiting the Château d'If

Completing the tourist's circle that I began on Sunday, I concluded my stay in Marseille with a visit to the infamous Château d'If, the former fortress and island prison on the island of If, now known the world over because of its mention in Alexandre Dumas( père)'s The Count of Monte Cristo, and later William Friedkin's 1971 thriller The French Connection. I debated about whether to see it or find some other way to spend my final afternoon in Marseille, but once I was able to find a post office to mail back books (having been told it did not open until 2 pm, which sparked my curiosity about the limited hours, only to find that in fact, it was open, the people I dealt with were very friendly and helpful, and my books and postcards should be back in New Jersey in one piece, and soon), I decided, why not, I have the time, the walk to the Old Port isn't far, the boat ride isn't long and should be relaxing, and it probably will not be as much of a tourist trap as I think.

The highest tower at the Château d'If
It wasn't. Today being Tuesday, the line for tickets and onto the boat flowed briskly, the trip over was pleasant, and...once I got there, I had an almost unearthly feeling, as if there were unsettled spirits roaming around the place. I actually felt my arms to make sure I wasn't having a panic attack (???), but as I walked around the main building where prisoners were held (and burned to death, tortured, etc.), I really started to get the creeps, feeling lightheaded and thinking, I'm about to faint. I crept back to the entrance of the building, amidst the loudly cawing gulls, which apparently were in mating season (though my friend Trasi mentioned that they were doing this when she was there, and she also got a strange vibe, leading her to write a story about the experience), and their racket did not help matters. It was almost Poe-esque in its eeriness. 

I decided to go inside anyway, and am glad I did. Once you enter the main fortress building immediate to the right, past the gift shop was a very thorough, respectful exhibit on Dumas père, with timelines, a biography, descriptions of his work, especially The Count of Monte Cristo, and a video of his interral in the Panthéon, in 2002, as one of France's immortals. The exhibit also included his famous quote, which he gave when asked whether he knew any blacks--which was supposed to rankle him--to which he famously replied, "My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather was a monkey. You see, Sir, my family begins where yours ends." I'm not so sure about that "monkey" bit but I get the context, what he was dealing with and where he was coming from.

In addition to the Dumas exhibit and lots of Marseille and Château d'If tchotchkes in the gift shop, there were all sorts of plaques commemorating various moments, often horrifying, in French history, ranging from the slaughter of the Huguenots, some 3,500 of whom were held in this prison (how?), to the murder of a member of the French commune in 1871. Topping it off were the rooms in which the "Man in the Iron Mask" was allegedly kept, which I did explore, and the chamber where, as I said, someone was burned alive. That, thankfully, was locked. (Mostly likely Mark Twain introduced the tale about the "Man in the Iron Mask" having been held here in Innocents Abroad, and the myth has continued since that time, not only because of him, but it's doubtful whether he was ever held here.) All in all, touring a transformed prison renowned for its notoriety made me think about our own horrific prison industrial complex in the USA, and how we too are industrializing the racially, ethnically and class-based disparate incarceration of our fellow human beings, warehousing them in horrific conditions, some amounting to torture, and, as if most were in a castle a bay or sea away, we say and do nothing about this. And then there's the monstrous prison at Guantánamo Bay....

Having ascended several towers over the last few days I left the Château's highest one to my imagination, instead touring most of the open rooms, none of which I would want to be left in after dark. Some of the rooms had incongruously modern furniture, and others had up-to-date video materials, so I got the impression that whoever was running it wasn't exactly sure how to kit it up for visitors, but the history itself was nevertheless omnipresent. From the main roof area the views of the city and the Frioul Archipelago were beyond believable, and I took quite a lot of pictures, but also just looked out at the water and thought about all the people who'd made the passage along these byways, as well as the many who'd been stuck in this fortress or tossed to their death, weights around their ankles or bullets in their chest, from its heights. We sailed back after a short stop at one of the Frioul Islands, and I was glad to say I saw the Château d'If, but I am not sure I would want to go back there, though I recommend seeing it at least once if you find yourself in Marseille for a few days and haven't already visited it.

Queuing for the boat to take us to If 
Seagull chicks, which I'd
never seen before
Fisherman, on the If dock
A view from the fortress 
Heading up into the fortress area 
Some of the walls, which were
never challenged by invaders
Two more modern buildings
(relatively speaking) on If
The Château's high tower 
The building housing offices 
In the Château's inner courtyard
M. Alexandre Dumas père
One the larger windows,
which would have been in a cell
for one of the wealthier or
more aristocratic prisoners
(the poor were kept in windowless
cells below)
The main doorway, looking
out toward Marseille
(I almost want to say that
Notred Dame is visible if you squint)
The cell in which a prisoner
was burned alive 
The room housing the Man
in the Iron Mask (myth, but....)
The tower to the roof 
In one of the upper room cells 
The island plan as you enter 
One of the Frioul islands, Ratonneau,
where we briefly stopped 
Newer and older (ruins) buildings
on Ratonneau, a Frioul island
Marseille's new port, with
its lighthouse, Joliette port, and
CMA CGM Tower in the distance

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